Napoleon, Wellington and Thinking With Your Body

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In The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, John Coates explains how chemicals within the body interact with the brain. The surges of dopamine during pleasure, testosterone during aggression, and cortisol under stress, are not only triggered by the brain, they have a reciprocal effect on thought and consciousness.

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John Coates is a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge. Coates was also a successful manager of a Goldman Sachs trading department for over a decade. His observations of trading behavior led him to the conclusion that more than rational thought was involved in the execution of trades. He saw the emotional surges of adrenaline inflate markets into bubbles. He also saw the depths of despair cloud judgement to the point of paralysis.

However, no other chemical in the body seemed to affect the cognitive behavior of the Wall Street trader more than the hormone testosterone. The wolf – in Coates’ metaphor – lurks just beneath the surface. When challenged, the testosterone surges and aggression takes over. It is the basis of the “fight” instinct when the opposite choice is flight. In the world of the trader, too much testosterone can lead to aggressive trades that miscalculate risk.

Coates also examines the role of the body’s “second brain” known as the enteric system that contains approximately 100 million neurons and produces the same neurotransmitters as the brain. The vagus nerve – the main connection between the brain and enteric nervous system forms a direct link to the chemicals in the stomach and digestive tract. “Trusting your gut” can be taken in its most literal sense.

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The enteric nervous system forms the basis of preconscious thought – It registers biological feedback before the conscious mind can compute it. The most frequent human example is the instantaneous recognition of facial expressions. Even the smallest change in the face of can be identified as worry or anger milliseconds before the analytical mind fully recognizes the emotion.

While Coates observed Wall Street through the lens of chemical surges, I thought about its applications in major historical events. I had recently read Bernard Cornwell’s book on Waterloo and thought about how the fateful battle was shaped by both rational analysis and the chemicals surging through the body.

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Waterloo, in southern Belgium, was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s final defeat in 1815.

In a stunning turn of events, the ink had barely dried on the peace agreement from the previous Napoleonic wars when Napoleon returned as Emperor. In a caper that rivals the fictional tales of Captain Jack Sparrow, Napoleon escaped exile on the island of Elba while the British ship patrolling the harbor departed for Italy where the British captain could enjoy a tryst with his mistress.

Upon reaching France, he found a population that was already disenchanted with the restored monarchy in 1815. As Napoleon marched from southern France to the capital his small band of partisans grew into a formidable force of thousands as the French army deserted their posts and rejoined their once-exiled leader. Napoleon marched to Paris where he received a hero’s welcome: literally carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds. Women wore violets, a symbol of his previous reign. The effect on Napoleon must have been intoxicating.

With Napoleon in power again as Emperor, the British, Dutch and Prussians were determined to remove him once and for all. They immediately declared war on L’Empereur.

Napoleon surely did not lack testosterone.

Rather than adopt a defensive tactic and digging in defenses at the French border, Napoleon advanced on positions held by British and Dutch forces in southern Belgium. After some of the bloodiest fighting in recorded history, France was routed. Napoleon was once again banished, this time to the remote island of St. Helena.

The Battle of Waterloo began as a tactical chess match filled with strategy and intrigue, but it ultimately degenerated into capitulation and chaos as French lines panicked and fled. Prussian and British cavalry slaughtered the fleeing French. The battle between bodily chemicals and rational thought were well and truly on full display.

Napoleon’s mere presence at the front of his lines, it has often been written, was worth an additional 40,000 men. While Napoleon was a genius of military strategy and logistics, it was his aggressive charisma that whipped his soldiers into a frenzy of fearlessness. But one certainly has to ask: Was the surge in chemicals affecting his brain so powerful that he lost a sense of proportion and judgment while at Waterloo? John Coates would probably say yes.

The decision to attack on foreign ground rather than defend French territory, in hindsight, registers as a poor decision. Napoleon was riding high on his restored status as Emperor, and he was brimming with over-confidence.

The Duke of Wellington strikes a contrast as a force of calm in a sea of chaos. He is seen dispatching orders while using the front of his saddle as an improvised desk.

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Wellington deployed his troops beyond the top of a ridge to camouflage the exact locations and number of soldiers. Napoleon’s powerful artillery columns were less effective against these positions. The British army formed disciplined “squares” to defend against the feared French Cuirassiers on horseback. And while Napoleon organized his troops masterfully, he ignored poor weather conditions and his advancing armies became hopelessly bogged down in thick mud.

While Wellington’s correspondence was direct and clear, Napoleon’s orders could be vague and allowed for misinterpretation. In one of the most infamous incidents at Waterloo, Napoleon instructed one of his generals to engage the British on their southern flank. Before they encountered the enemy, another order called the army back to the main concentration of forces. In the end, thousands of French troops spent the battle of Waterloo in the woods. They neither engaged the British at the south flank, nor were they in the time to reinforce the main French forces.

Napoleon’s aggressive attack on the British and Dutch positions left his right flank dangerously exposed to Von Blucher’s Prussian forces advancing from the north. Early in the battle, Napoleon believed that the Prussians were in full retreat after some early skirmishes. In reality, Von Blucher had regrouped his troops for a powerful counter-attack that shattered the French right flank.

To say that the greatest victory in British military history turned on the tide of human chemical interactions is perhaps an exaggeration, but it offers one a new lens through which to analyze historical events.

Coates offers remedies to balance the conflict between the rational mind and the chemical surges in the body:

  1. Use statistics. Hard data can show when a gut feeling is merely a response to random perceptions of events or deeper recognition of a pattern.
  2. Work with a partner or coach. They can temper your emotional triggers and provide objectivity.
  3. Monitor your physiology. The brain consumes far more glucose than your muscles. If glucose drops significantly, the brain is more likely to succumb to a loss of control or impulsive reaction. Nourishment and adequate sleep are critical.
  4. Build exposure to healthy stress. Mild stress breeds resilience. Confronting challenges regularly builds mental strength. The process of exploration and risk-taking stimulates the positive brain chemical dopamine. Prolonged exposure to stress can overload the body with cortisol and lead to extreme risk aversion. Exercise is critical. Professional athletes build stamina and resilience in a pattern of pushing the body near exhaustion followed by recovery. Thermodynamic research has has also shown that exposure to cold builds superior resilience to stress.
  5. Consume and spread information carefully. As we have become more obsessed with the internet, we have a constant strain of information thrown at us. Tony Schwartz, the energy guru, has admitted that even he has fallen prey to his internet addiction. Sifting through facts vs rumor or “noise” is increasingly difficult. Go on a “smart phone diet.”
  6. Quiet the mind. Meditation may be needed to calm the chemistry of dopamine, testosterone and cortisol and restore the body to balanced levels.